Football: Attila the Hull dreams of conquest

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Mark Hateley could have gone to many clubs as player-manager, but he chose one which has consistently failed to punch its weight, Hull City.

As the Third Division club prepared to meet Newcastle United tonight, Guy Hodgson talked to the former England striker to find out why.

They would not dare call Hull City sleeping giants. Comatose pygmies maybe, as even their most dedicated supporters would be hard put to find anything leviathan in their past. Glory has tended, like the M62, to fall short of the town.

An FA Cup semi-final in 1930 and various ups and downs in the lower divisions is not a history to be particularly proud of at a club with half-a- million people within easy commuting distance. Which makes Mark Hateley's arrival at Boothferry Park as player-manager intriguing. Is north Humberside stirring at last?

Attila the Hun to Attila the Hull is a demotion in historical and football terms, but they have beaten Crystal Palace of the Premiership this season and there are signs things are being turned round in the Third Division. Tonight 4,800 fans will travel to Newcastle United with a Coca-Cola Cup upset in mind.

"The potential here is enormous," Hateley said. "It's a great catchment area full of sports-orientated people. You look back over the past 10, 20 years and the crowds that came here were fantastic. Those people are still there and if we can get the club run properly from the school of excellence through to the first team they'll come back."

It is the promise of things to come that persuaded Hateley to go to Hull and back. After a playing career of 20 years - with, among others, England, Milan, Monaco and Rangers - he was looking for something more than the Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday grind and was quickly persuaded by the visions of the chief executive Michael Appleton and David Lloyd, the club's chairman and Britain's Davis Cup tennis captain.

"It was a two-minute meeting," Hateley said. "They were very positive and thought on the same lines as myself. I'm always moving the goalposts, always setting the standard higher in terms of ambition. They want to achieve what I want to achieve."

It is fair to say that what Hateley achieved on the football field was done away from the English game. At 21, raw and strong, he left for Italy and returned in his thirties, only to become the brunt of supporters criticism at Queen's Park Rangers. He learned his trade on the Continent and brought it to fruition in Scotland, playing a part in six championships.

He does not regret missing out on the Liverpools or Manchester Uniteds of the English game on the valid grounds that he played for three clubs with worldwide reputations. "I was 21 and I was invited to go to Milan, who wouldn't want to go there?

"It was a great experience not only for myself but my family too. I can see it in my kids. They're very confident, they speak a couple of languages, it was an education for everyone."

It was certainly a finishing school for the player, whose touch on the ground was not as sure as his threat in the air. "When you go to Italy you get the ball once every 10-15 minutes, so you learn to adore it, to keep it and look after it. Here you get so much possession you don't appreciate the value of it. That's why the marksmen in Italy become very clinical, the chances are few and far between."

Hateley, along with Ray Wilkins, got Milan into Europe for the first time in nine seasons and helped lay the foundations for the team who won the European Cup. He had moved on by then, taking in Monaco en route to Scotland.

"Undoubtedly I played my best football at Rangers," he said. "What I had learned in France and Italy came together in Glasgow and Ally McCoist and myself scored over 300 goals in six seasons, which is a phenomenon anywhere. It was a marvellous period in my life. Great times and great friends."

He has drawn on those ties since, calling Walter Smith, the Rangers manager, for advice as he has set about changing Hull from a long-ball team. "The club has been kicked and body-blowed for 20 years," he said. "I inherited 44 players who had been barracked and abused for years and it's difficult to get them out of their shells. After three months they are just learning to play again."

"I shout a lot because that's the way you get things done. When I arrived there were complaints from people saying `You're asking too much, we're only a Third Division outfit'. That's rubbish. If you think Third Division that's where you'll stay. If you aim for the top you might fall short, but you won't be far away."

Hull will be shooting high tonight, taking on a Newcastle side whose commitment to the Coca-Cola Cup is likely to be more genuine than other clubs in Europe because of their need to win some silverware. It is a big game, although Hateley is unlikely to get over-excited even if they do spring the shock of the round.

"For my players it will probably be the biggest game of their careers," he said. "My message will be the same as for the Crystal Palace match: `Go out and enjoy it, don't let the game pass you by. The pressure's off. We're not expecting to win."

"Every game is important to me. Somebody asked me after the Palace match how that rated in my career. I replied that it was the same as playing for the reserves. I like to win whatever game. They're all important. Full stop. Everyone should play like it's their last match."

The last match in Hull's case was a 3-0 win Scarborough that elevated them to third from bottom. The form line is in their favour, however, and Hateley is looking for a mid-table position by the end of the season. "In six weeks we'll have the structure we want, the right people in the right places. It's going to be very exciting round here."

After 90 years of under-achievement, Hull are due a thrill or two.